ASPEN - I was sitting at my desk at the San Francisco Examiner one day in 1979 when Michael Walsh, the classical music critic, stopped by. We often chatted about concerts, but this time he was holding a record album with a garish red title scrawled across the cover: "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."
"This," Walsh said, slapping the hefty 3-LP album on my desk, "is the great American opera we've all been waiting for." Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist, would have cringed. Famously, he resists the notion that anything he writes could be construed as opera. By 1979 Sondheim has written lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy" and unconventional music for "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music" and "Pacific Overtures." He was then, and still is, the best composer in the theater. "Sweeney Todd" had just opened to mixed reviews on Broadway, many of which hated the unsavory story.
I stopped at the record store on the way home to buy a copy. My wife and I listened to it straight through, mesmerized. Then we played it again. A few months later I saw the show on Broadway and understood how completely it depended on the music, and not just the songs.
Aspen will get a taste of Sondheim's extraordinary achievement when Aspen Music Festival music director Robert Spano conducts three performances of "Sweeney," starting with Thursday night's gala at the Wheeler Opera House. Edward Berkeley directs, so the staging should be thought-provoking. But the engine that makes the piece work is the music.
Sondheim's score does so much more than give us a series of songs, duets and choruses. The music churns through most of the scenes. Like Bernard Herrmann's scores to Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers, its presence paints the atmosphere. It amps up the horror and underlies the emotional shifts.
In "Finishing the Hat," Sondheim's first book about writing his musicals, he admits it was Herrmann and his Hollywood contemporaries who inspired him to write music. It also sparked his interest in "Sweeney Todd," based on a British tale of a murderous barber. When he saw Christopher Bond's play based on the Sweeney legend, he writes, "It immediately struck me as material for a musical horror story, one which would not be sung-through but which would be held together by ceaseless underscoring that would keep an audience in suspense and maybe scare the hell out of them."
That's why it took three LPs to hold the music. This is why so many people think of this as an opera, because it constantly connects the music to the action. Like great opera composers Sondheim intertwines snatches of music we have heard to jog our memories and intensify what's happening before us. The underscoring is extraordinarily effective and composed with a craftsmanship that puts most opera composers to shame.
But that's not all. Like the great opera composers, Sondheim can create the atmosphere of a scene or the personality of a character with purely musical means. A factory whistle sets up the story's overtones of the powerful trampling the downtrodden. Then comes a quiet swaying figure that's based on the "Dies irae" (first heard inverted so it's subliminal). Over that comes "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," crafted to sound like an English pub song, its chorus, "Swing your razor high, Sweeney!" also based on the "Dies irae" (right-side up this time).
Then there's the way he uses music from one song as a gateway into a later song to create a reference point and bring back the relevant emotions. The first song we hear, "There's No Place Like London," is sung by Anthony, a sailor on the ship bringing Todd back from Australia. Anthony, the sailor, sings of being home "From the Dardanelles to the mountains of Peru." Moments later, to the same tune, a bitter Todd sings, "For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru." It's not a reprise, but a lead-in to a new, warmer melody, "There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful," telling of the lecherous judge who transported Todd so he could rape his wife.
A few minutes later Mrs. Lovett, the wacky proprietor of a failing pie shop, picks up the same tune when she sings, "There was a barber and his wife, and he was beautiful." Everything in this whole piece is fused together musically.
"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" returns repeatedly as a scene changer, but each time it starts in a different part of the tune, or with a different musical twist.
Some of the songs are nothing less than arias, demanding classically trained voices and depicting powerful emotions or moments. Sweeney's "My Friends" is a passionate love song to his barber's tools, sung when Mrs. Lovett reunites him with them. "Epiphany" is a mad scene in which, having missed an opportunity to dispatch Judge Turpin (who sent him away), he vows to "practice on less honorable throats."
There are three songs called "Johanna," Todd's now-grown daughter and Judge Turpin's ward. In the first, Anthony the sailor sings the expansive and lyrically arresting melody to the girl in the balcony. In the next, Turpin confronts his lust for the girl in a wrenching mad scene. And finally, a brilliantly crafted sequence starts with Anthony, searching London for her, reprising the love song, then intersperses it with scenes of Todd singing an amiable tune while he knocks off several customers. A mysterious beggar woman interrupts to warn the city of an unpleasant burning smell.
The smell, of course, is the result of turning the bodies into filling for Mrs. Lovett's pies. In a ghoulishly funny waltz song, "A Little Priest," Mrs. Lovett suggests the idea to Todd, and they merrily try to out-pun each other on the different flavors of priest, marine, tinker and cashier. Several other genuinely funny songs leaven the score, including our introduction to Mrs. Lovett ("The Worst Pies in London") and her bouncy ballad "By the Sea."
The score also has several complex, funny, scary and immensely entertaining crowd scenes. The first introduces us to Todd's first victim, another barber who Todd can't resist besting in a public contest. When Pirelli recognizes Todd, that's it for the Italian. But first we get a magnificently detailed scene in which Pirelli, a flamboyant tenor, sings in triplets in a send-up of Rossini. In "God That's Good" customers laud Mrs. Lovett's suddenly luscious pies as the rhythms pile up on one another.
And finally, "Johanna" isn't the only inspired and remarkably beautiful melody. Johanna's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," an arietta for lyric soprano, could have been lifted from a Viennese operetta. Judge Turpin's duet with Sweeney, "Pretty Women," weaves two bass baritone voices in sinuous, heartfelt appreciation for the opposite sex, but with two clearly different-and twisted-motivations.
Whether Sondheim thinks of Sweeney Todd as an opera, the piece certainly uses elements that any who knows opera will recognize. In the end, though, it matters little what you call it. It's just great musical theater, with the emphasis on music.